The playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote plays to share his message with a large number of people, an idea that seems old-fashioned in the age of new media.
But what if Shaw still chose to write plays in the midst of the 21st century?
“Is there something about the experience of live theater that actually is capable of creating more effective and profound change than sitting in front of a television or watching a movie? And I think the answer is probably yes,” Ethan McSweeny said.
“Yes,” Vivienne Benesch agreed, nodding.
Benesch and McSweeny, artistic directors of Chautauqua Theater Company since 2005, presented “Soul and Story: Choosing a Life in the Theater” together at 2 p.m. Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy. Their presentation was the second installment in Week Four’s afternoon Interfaith Lecture Series, “Art and Soul.”
Rather than lecture, McSweeny, a self-identified cynic, and Benesch, who errs on the side of mysticism, asked each other’s opinions about art and spirituality, demonstrating a camaraderie borne of a 16-year friendship.
“Did you choose this life?” McSweeny asked Benesch, referring to a life of theater.
She replied, “I don’t believe it was a choice for me.”
Her family is extremely artistic, she said, and she was exposed to theater at an early age. In times of turmoil, Benesch turned to theater as an alternate, controllable reality.
“To play make-believe … that was my refuge,” she said. “Was it a choice? No. It was a pull — a calling, if you will.”
“That’s a kind of loaded word — a calling,” McSweeny said.
He mused later that religion and theater share a common larger vocabulary.
“Quite a bit of that vocabulary is in the context of how we became practioners of this ancient and constantly dying art form, whose end is constantly heralded at least twice a decade, only to resurface, yet again,” he said.
He, too, was exposed to theater as a child, but considered it a hobby, something he would eventually outgrow.
“I guess I feel like I did everything I could to not choose theater,” he said.
He attended a university without a theater program in pursuit of a degree in Russian studies.
His epiphany came in college, when he realized he was failing to learn Russian because he skipped language lab to attend student production rehearsals.
“My interest in theater overwhelmed my better judgment,” he said. “It is a little mystical to characterize it as a calling, but I suppose maybe it is.”
But both emphasized that theater is a craft, not only a calling.
McSweeny asked Benesch, “When did you decide to be an artist?”
Benesch was interested in criminal law, an interest she now recognizes as an early manifestation of her passion for theater.
“It was some idea of getting to represent the disenfranchised, and to stand … publicly (to) do so,” she said. “That was very appealing to me.”
Two childhood moments in particular shaped her path, Benesch said.
One was the first time she made her father laugh.
“That moment where the child realizes they have the capacity to bring joy to someone,” she said. “I always go back to that moment. I affected someone there, and that is an addiction.”
The second was a monologue she performed in fourth grade. Others noticed her talent, and she reflected on the human desire to be the best.
She wondered aloud if McSweeny had any performing experiences of his own before he began directing.
He convinced a substitute teacher that his regular teacher, out sick, had left him in charge of the school’s theater production.
“(I) proceeded to edit and direct a production of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ starring myself as Scrooge. So I think it was mostly about the acquisition of power, for me,” he joked.
He cited the role of Captain von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” as another formative role, “but that kind of peaked my career as a performer,” he said.
The two transitioned into a consideration of the spiritual aspect to the theater. Benesch explained the process of inviting a character’s spirit to reside within oneself.
“As an actor, you want the spirit of a person to enter you … you want to invite that character’s spirit into you,” she said. “You spend a rehearsal process having a conversation with the character you’re playing.”
“You’re describing the act of acting as a little bit like channeling … that has a spiritual dimension,” McSweeny said.
Benesch agreed and asked him about his own spirituality in regard to directing.
“I think on some level, the difference between a director and an actor is an actor goes very … deep into a single psyche, a single person, and the director’s responsibility is actually to stay a bit outside that and tell a wider story,” McSweeny said, explaining that he did not experience the same prospect of channeling that Benesch and other actors adopt. “I think I got interested in directing because I was a frustrated actor — because I wasn’t actually satisfied with just focusing on a single character.”
Directors are deliberately excluded, in part because they are the representation of the audience, he said. But McSweeny said his personal failures have a religious dimension.
“There is the quality of a demanding sacrifice of the practitioner. … It does ask of you to give up a lot of things, not just remuneration,” he said.
Despite personal disappointment with his Broadway debut, Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man,” he moved on, he said. He found another play and used it to tell a story and affect people.
“On a spiritual level, (theater) asks you to give up things, and I think it keeps challenging you and testing you to renew your commitment,” he said.
Benesch referenced the Monday afternoon lecture presented by Don Kimes, artistic director of Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution, on the importance of getting lost in order to find one’s way.
“There’s something about, as I get older, the balance of what it means to be a dedicated, fully consumed artist and what it means to live my life as a human being, and that, actually, to be a better artist I need to keep living my real life,” Benesch said.
Many young artists fixate on their failures, believing they signify the impossibility of a successful career, instead of understanding that artists need pitfalls to become better.
“A faith journey is that: At what point do you trust?” she said.
“Have you ever thought about doing something else, recently?” McSweeny asked her.
“Momentarily,” Benesch said. “I think I experience a lot of those moments where (I say), ‘Oh, I should be doing something ‘more important.’ I think every artist goes through that,” she said.
Benesch said celebrity holds little appeal for her, but she wants to have the ability to “effect change where change is needed,” to have the opportunity to travel and to use her influence to make a positive impact.
She paraphrased advice McSweeny’s sister shared with her earlier that morning.
“She said … you don’t have to be able to do six things at once,” Benesch said. “You can create a palette or a community which can effect all that change so you are a part of all those things.”
McSweeny said he worries about reaching out to his audience, but concluded, “If you really want to sort of change the hearts and minds of people, the theater is a pretty good place to do it — at least, I hope so.
“If I hadn’t had experiences in the theater where that had happened to me, I wouldn’t be here today talking to you about why I make theater. … It only happens every once in a while, but we’re believers because we go in hope of that moment occurring again. You go in hope that that transaction that you can only really get in the live theater will occur and lift you out of yourself and return you back to yourself, a different and changed person. I think we all go questing after that moment.”
Benesch cited Anton Chekhov, playwright of Chautauqua Theater Company’s most recent production, “Three Sisters.”
Chekhov said, “If you want to change people, first you have to show them who they are.”
“That’s the charge I feel that we have, today,” Benesch said.
Vivienne Benesch is an actor, director, producer, and teacher who has worked extensively on and Off Broadway, in film and television and at many of the country's most eminent theaters and arts institutions. Alongside Ethan McSweeny, she is in her seventh season as co-Artistic Director of the Chautauqua Theater Company and Conservatory where she began as a student in 1989. For CTC she has directed Amadeus, Rx, An Incident, Sick, Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure, The Skin of Our Teeth and The 9/11 Project and acted in Arcadia, Reckless, 100 Saints You Should Know, Iphigenia and Other Daughters and Waiting for the Parade.
This spring, Vivienne will star Off Broadway in the first New York revival of Michael Frayn’s Benefactors with the award winning Keen Company. Recent stage work includes the London revival of Edward Albee’s The Lady from Dubuque opposite Maggie Smith, and Lee Blessing’s Going to St. Ives, a performance for which she received an OBIE award. In New York her Broadway credits include: After the Fall, Salome, Deep Blue Sea, and The Heiress; Off Broadway: Lincoln Center Theatre, New York Theatre Workshop, NYSF/Public Theatre, MTC, Primary Stages, CSC, MCC and Theatre for a New Audience. Regional work includes leading roles at The Guthrie Theater, Hartford Stage, The Alley, A.C.T. San Francisco, Shakespeare Theatre Company, McCarter, Long Wharf, Westport Country Playhouse, and four seasons at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. TV & film credits include Teeth, American Splendor, Tenderness, Corn, “Paradise,” “The Good Wife,” “Six Feet Under,” “Sex and the City,” “The Education of Max Bickford,” “The Division,” and multiple episodes of “Law & Order.”
As a director Benesch has worked extensively at The Juilliard School where she has staged Measure for Measure, Arms and the Man, A Month in the Country, The Seagull and Getting Out. Her highly acclaimed production of Richard III for the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey was named Top Ten of 2007 by the New Jersey Star Ledger. She has taught at Juilliard and NYU’s Graduate Acting Program, and coaches privately in New York and Los Angeles. From 2006 to 2010 she served as adjudicator and then Chair of the theatre panel for the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts youngARTS program. She is a graduate of Brown University and NYU’s Graduate Acting Program.
Ethan McSweeny is co-Artistic Director of the Chautauqua Theatre Company, which he has lead for the last seven years alongside Vivienne Benesch, growing the company in artistry, audiences, and national impact while cultivating its reputation as a training-center for the finest emerging actors in the country. At Chautauqua, he has directed Glass Menagerie, Death of a Salesman, The Just, The Cherry Orchard, All My Sons, Cobb, and the 2008 Amphitheatre production of Every Good Boy Deserves Favor, in addition to numerous readings in the NPW series.
In New York, his directing credits include the Broadway revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle Awards, Tony Award nomination), the off-Broadway premiere of John Logan’s Never the Sinner (Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards), and the world premiers of Kate Fodor’s 100 Saints You Should Know and Jason Grote’s 1001 -- both named among the “Top 10 Plays of 2007” by Entertainment Weekly and TimeOut magazines. He recently directed an acclaimed Dangerous Liaisons for the celebrated Stratford Festival in Canada, and has staged more than 60 productions of new work, classics, musicals, and revivals on preeminent stages around the United States, including the Goodman, the Guthrie, the Old Globe, the Shakespeare Theatre, the Denver Center, the Alley, Centerstage, Dallas Theater Center, South Coast Rep, George Street, San Jose, Pittsburgh Public, Westport Playhouse, Wilma, Primary Stages, Playwrights Horizons, and the National Actors Theatre, among others.
Long involved in the leadership of arts organizations, Mr. McSweeny currently serves as the Treasurer of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, a national labor union, and received the first-ever undergraduate degree in theatre and dramatic arts from Columbia University.